One-to-one mentoring with grazing experts has helped Duncan and Sarah Howie in the transition from all-year-round to block calving, with milk from forage now improved. Hannah Noble reports.
Husband and wife, Duncan and Sarah Howie retuned to Wellbatch Farm, Shrewsbury, to join Sarah’s parents David and Helen Kent in 2016 and two-years-ago became part of the British Grassland Society’s Grazing Mentor Project.
Historically the herd at Wellbatch Farm had been an all-year-round calving herd of Holsteins, yielding just over 8,000kgs. However, a short time into their new partnership, Mr and Mrs Howie decided to move towards a block calving system.
Mrs Howie explains the family looked at many different systems and settled on autumn block calving with a slant towards grazing.
She says: “On-farm, grass growth pretty much stops in the summer which will now coincide with when we are dry. This will reduce demand on the platform and our contract would not allow us to go down the spring calving route.”
To aid their conversion to block calving the family applied to join the British Grassland Society’s (BGS) Grazing Mentors project which has now come to an end was funded by the Prince’s Countryside Fund and offered farmers, with any level of grazing experience free, one-to-one mentoring with grazing experts.
Chief executive of the BGS, Tom Goatman says:“The purpose of the project which was established in 2016 was to improve grass utilisation for milk or livestock production through a mentoring approach. We teamed farmers up with other farmers who are experienced in grassland management, and we looked at problems and setting goals on individual farms.”
Over the last four years the programme has trained 11 mentors and helped 20 beef, sheep and dairy farms to improve their businesses. The Howie’s mentors were Tony Evans, head of dairy business consultancy at The Anderson Centre, Melton Mowbray, and Matthew Ingram, Ludlow, Shropshire, who runs an autumn calving dairy farm.
Mrs Howie says: “In January 2017 we started changing the breeding of the cows and when we served them. Initially we created two blocks, one spring and one autumn, this year will be the first year calving just one autumn block.”
She explains the herd now comprises 300 Holstein Friesians, which are being bred to Kiwi Friesian and Kiwi cross genetics for six weeks starting from mid-November. This is followed by artificial insemination with Aberdeen Angus semen for four weeks and the remaining cows are swept up by Aberdeen-Angus stock bulls for another two weeks.
As part of their move towards autumn block calving Mrs Howie says there is a greater emphasis on grazing. Last year cows are now housed from October 20, with an ‘early as possible’ turnout now the aim. This year turnout was the first week of March.
Mr Howie says: “It has been quite a steep learning curve for us and the mentor programme has been great as has being a member of our local grazing discussion group.
“It was really handy to be able to pick up the phone at any time and ask the mentors any questions we had about what we should be doing.”
The Howie’s milk from forage figure has greatly improved with the change to grazing, and Mr Howie says the cows now produce about 7,000 litres each lactation at 4.12 per cent fat and 3.34 per cent protein.
In 2016 the milk from forage figure was about 2,671 litres, but now this figure is just under 4,000 litres. Milk price has not changed significantly and the margin over purchased feed is now £1,928 per head per year.
Mr Howie says they did the majority of fencing at the start of their conversion, splitting the farm into 3.2 hectares (8 acres) paddocks to provide grazing for 24 hours.
They have since added a number of cow tracks in a variety of different materials including concrete sleeper, soil and Astroturf, all with differing success.
He says the grass is measured weekly using a plate metre and Agrinet software is used to calculate the grazing budget.
Mrs Howie adds: “One of the biggest challenges has been fertility, having big Holsteins we have struggled to get them back in-calf and they were not built for walking out into the fields. Changing the genetics is a long-term project but we decided to do this rather than replace the herd.”
She explains heats are now detected using tail paint and cows are segregated during morning milking and served by a technician.
Heifers are synchronised starting in mid-November to calve between 22 and 24-months-old.
Mrs Howie says: “We scanned the bulling and in-calf heifers recently and 74 out of 78 are in-calf so we are very pleased with them.”